Mental health problems including stress, anxiety and depression will account for around 70% of employee absences by 2025, according to national occupational health provider, BHSF OH.
The organisation’s managing director, Dr Philip McCrea, explains why occupational health has the potential to be a game changer when it comes to preventing and limiting the often costly effects of employee stress. He also sets out how an effective OH service can drastically reduce sickness absence and staff turnover, boosting the operational success and profitability of a business.
The current annual cost of employee sickness absence in the UK is estimated by PwC to be £29bn, and the pressure is on all employers to reduce this burden as far as possible. With a total of 9.9 million working days lost due to stress in 2014/15 according to the Health and Safety Executive, and our research suggesting absences due to mental health problems are set to soar over the next decade, it is clear where the focus should lie – mental health and wellbeing should be at the top of every business leader’s HR agenda.
However, the reality is that many employers would admit to lacking confidence when it comes to approaching issues such as workplace stress and they simply do not know where to start in tackling the many challenges it presents – mainly for fear that intervention will exacerbate any problems. When you add to this the many day-to-day demands and time pressures that come with running a business and managing a workforce, it is easy to see why employers put off or even ignore such matters – often until the point of crisis.
When it comes to ensuring employers are fulfilling their duty of care to the workforce, OH providers can play a crucial role, with experienced professionals able to provide a tailored service firmly focused on meeting the changing needs of each individual business.
An effective OH provision will start by working closely in partnership with an employer to ensure there is a stress management policy in place. This should outline the business’s commitment to protecting the health and wellbeing of staff, while also identifying roles and responsibilities for those within the organisation, and setting out all relevant HR processes in place.
A robust stress management policy provides a clear statement of intent – it demonstrates to each individual employee that the business is concerned for their wellbeing, and that it unequivocally understands its role and obligations in terms of managing workplace stress.
With statistics showing only half of employees return to work after a three month absence, it is imperative that businesses are focused on working with OH professionals on preventative measures, rather than waiting for a costly and disruptive situation to develop.
OH professionals can help employers take a pre-emptive strike against stress through the assessment of risks and common stressors. These may differ greatly from business to business, and they can be far more complex than workload or team capacity – they could centre on the potential for relationship conflict for example, or they could even come down to environmental factors such as the location or layout of the office.
Those who are closely involved in the running of the business may find they are not in the best position to see or appreciate these risks, which is why an OH provider can really make a difference. Being aware of the many causes of stress in the workplace can ultimately be very empowering for employers, as this knowledge can transform the culture and success of a business. OH providers can assist employers to act on this information effectively, and to develop a proactive stress management strategy.
Of course, it is not always possible to prevent stress, but if it cannot be prevented then it must be identified early on. OH professionals can use their specialist knowledge to inform and train line managers – to help them recognise the symptoms of stress in their colleagues, to ensure they understand when and how to step in, and crucially, to give them confidence in dealing with such issues.
Managers can often be the first to spot signs of stress, as they have day-to-day contact with individuals. They may see a change in a performance, signs or presenteeism or a difference in their attitude, and therefore they are well placed to ensure steps are taken early on to identify their stressors and remove them.Working together, employers and OH providers can ensure stress-related illnesses are actively managed, and that employees are supported to remain at work as part of a productive team or to return to work successfully.
The good news is that many stress-related problems, which are identified early on, can sometimes be relatively quick to fix – by making changes to the employee’s workload or moving them to another team, for example. An active OH professional will also continuously monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the procedures in place. This process is crucial to ensure that as workplace stressors change over time, they are quickly recognised and mitigated.
OH experts also have an ongoing role in collecting and analysing health data, which can highlight any emerging patterns and trends in the wellbeing of staff. For example, if one team in an organisation has a high rate of stress-related illness, this would be promptly identified, and it would be possible for the cause to be explored and eventually removed.
Today’s business leaders undoubtedly face a ticking time bomb when it comes to workplace stress. However, there is an opportunity to act now and proactively confront the issue to prevent it having a detrimental effect on the business in the long term, and there is no need to go it alone. By embracing OH and employee wellbeing, businesses can better understand the many potential causes of stress in their workplace, help all employees recognise the signs and symptoms, and monitor and review the measures in place to reduce stress – leading to a happy and productive workforce.